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Topic: Syrian rebels

Belated Action on Syria Won’t Deter Iran

Yesterday’s decision by the Obama administration to arm Syrian rebels ended years of American dithering while more than 90,000 people were slaughtered by the Assad regime. But coming as it did after a month of victories in the field by Assad and his Iranian-backed Hezbollah auxiliaries, the idea that this belated measure will have much of an impact on the fighting seems wildly optimistic. After weeks of indecision about whether the president should make good on his promise to act should Bashar Assad cross the “red line” of using chemical weapons, the announcement seemed aimed more at redeeming Obama’s good name than its impact on the ground. Should the rebel stronghold of Aleppo fall to government attacks in the coming weeks, Obama’s belated move will be seen for what it is: a half-hearted gesture aimed more at silencing critics (such as former President Bill Clinton) than the result of a strategy aimed at protecting U.S. interests or saving lives. As our Max Boot wrote, there is good reason to believe nothing said or done by the U.S. at this point will stop the government offensive.

But the real problem with an administration response that is too little and too late to probably do any good is not so much the disaster that is unfolding in Syria as its impact on the looming U.S. confrontation with Iran. Some may hope the president’s long ratiocination about Syria portends an American willingness to translate the president’s tough rhetoric about stopping Iranian nukes into action. But it’s hard to argue how Tehran could interpret recent events in any manner other than one that will encourage them to think that they needn’t worry about Washington acting in time to stop them from obtaining a nuclear weapon.

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Yesterday’s decision by the Obama administration to arm Syrian rebels ended years of American dithering while more than 90,000 people were slaughtered by the Assad regime. But coming as it did after a month of victories in the field by Assad and his Iranian-backed Hezbollah auxiliaries, the idea that this belated measure will have much of an impact on the fighting seems wildly optimistic. After weeks of indecision about whether the president should make good on his promise to act should Bashar Assad cross the “red line” of using chemical weapons, the announcement seemed aimed more at redeeming Obama’s good name than its impact on the ground. Should the rebel stronghold of Aleppo fall to government attacks in the coming weeks, Obama’s belated move will be seen for what it is: a half-hearted gesture aimed more at silencing critics (such as former President Bill Clinton) than the result of a strategy aimed at protecting U.S. interests or saving lives. As our Max Boot wrote, there is good reason to believe nothing said or done by the U.S. at this point will stop the government offensive.

But the real problem with an administration response that is too little and too late to probably do any good is not so much the disaster that is unfolding in Syria as its impact on the looming U.S. confrontation with Iran. Some may hope the president’s long ratiocination about Syria portends an American willingness to translate the president’s tough rhetoric about stopping Iranian nukes into action. But it’s hard to argue how Tehran could interpret recent events in any manner other than one that will encourage them to think that they needn’t worry about Washington acting in time to stop them from obtaining a nuclear weapon.

Iran is, after all, a key player in the Syrian mess. It was their decision to intervene in the civil war there and to send “volunteers” as well as its Hezbollah terrorist auxiliaries into the fray that stabilized Bashar Assad’s position when it appeared that he would fall as easily as President Obama predicted he would. While Obama talked about the fighting in Syria for two years before he lifted a finger to try to topple a dictator murdering tens of thousands of his own people, the Iranians jumped in with both feet and turned the tide of battle. While two years ago the announcement of American military aid to the rebels might have put a fork in Assad, it’s not clear the U.S. move will even slow Assad’s advance.

The primary focus of American foreign policy in the Middle East in the last two years has shifted from a futile attempt to convince the Palestinians to make peace to diplomacy aimed at convincing the Iranians to stand down on the nuclear question. But the lessons the Iranians are drawing from Syria will convince them to continue to stall negotiations and continue trying to run out the clock until their bomb becomes a reality.

Bolstered by their seeming victory in Syria and secure in the knowledge that their hegemony over a swath of the Middle East stretching from Tehran to Beirut is not going to be shaken, the ayatollahs see no reason to compromise with the West on the nuclear question. Driven by antagonism toward the West and genocidal fury at Israel, it’s unlikely that anything short of the use of force could deter Iran from going nuclear. But the proxy war that has unfolded in Syria has convinced them Obama is bluffing.

With the Syrian rebels divided between more presentable forces and al-Qaeda-linked terrorists, it’s difficult to argue with Americans who demand to know why aiding such a mixed bag of cutthroats is in the country’s interests. But the president’s belated decision is right because the alternative of letting Iran win in Syria without the West taking action is simply unacceptable. Were the U.S. to act now in such a manner as to deal the Iranians and Hezbollah a staggering blow, it might be argued that doing so would give Tehran reason to worry about what Obama would do about the nuclear question. But this minimalistic signal of U.S. displeasure with Assad will do nothing to scare Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

Though some may hope this week is the harbinger of decisive action on Iran, all it will probably accomplish is to make the Iranians a bit more confident that Obama will do nothing to stop them from going nuclear.

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West Must Help Syrian Rebels

The news from Syria suggests that the balance of power between the regime and its enemies is shifting against Bashar al-Assad and his loyalists. Joseph Holliday of the Institute for the Study of War writes, “The conflict in Syria is approaching a tipping point at which the insurgency will control more territory than the regime.” The rebel forces, he reports, number 40,000 men and they control their “own de facto safe zones around Homs city, in northern Hama, and in the Idlib countryside,” while the regime still holds “key urban centers in Damascus, Homs, and Idlib,” which were seized in offensives in February and March. The regime has so few loyal forces at its disposal that it will be hard put to mount a major offensive in the countryside while still retaining control of the urban areas.

That point is buttressed by this report from the field filed by Marine infantryman-turned-reporter Austin Tice, who has been embedded with the rebel forces. He writes:

Weeks of observation of Syrian military operations while traveling with rebel forces leave the impression that the Syrian army is unfamiliar with modern military tactics. It rarely engages rebel forces directly and appears instead to rely on poorly aimed and random fire to intimidate its opponents. Helicopters observed in northern and central portions of the country fly at an altitude that prevents their effective tactical employment.

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The news from Syria suggests that the balance of power between the regime and its enemies is shifting against Bashar al-Assad and his loyalists. Joseph Holliday of the Institute for the Study of War writes, “The conflict in Syria is approaching a tipping point at which the insurgency will control more territory than the regime.” The rebel forces, he reports, number 40,000 men and they control their “own de facto safe zones around Homs city, in northern Hama, and in the Idlib countryside,” while the regime still holds “key urban centers in Damascus, Homs, and Idlib,” which were seized in offensives in February and March. The regime has so few loyal forces at its disposal that it will be hard put to mount a major offensive in the countryside while still retaining control of the urban areas.

That point is buttressed by this report from the field filed by Marine infantryman-turned-reporter Austin Tice, who has been embedded with the rebel forces. He writes:

Weeks of observation of Syrian military operations while traveling with rebel forces leave the impression that the Syrian army is unfamiliar with modern military tactics. It rarely engages rebel forces directly and appears instead to rely on poorly aimed and random fire to intimidate its opponents. Helicopters observed in northern and central portions of the country fly at an altitude that prevents their effective tactical employment.

It is not clear whether this is reflective of incompetence or dual loyalties among the government forces, but whatever the case, it indicates that the Syrian military is not as formidable as it appeared while slaughtering civilians in months past.

The need now is for the West to help the Syrian rebels become better organized. As Holliday writes: “The priority for U.S. policy on Syria should be to encourage the development of opposition structures that could one day establish a monopoly on the use of force. External support must flow into Syria in a way that reinforces the growth of legitimate and stable structures within the Syrian opposition movement.” Achieving that goal will require deeper American involvement with the rebel forces. As I have argued before, this is not a job we can leave to the Saudis or Qataris, lest they wind up backing jihadist groups.

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Why U.S. Is Not Helping Syrian Rebels

The White House appears to be digging in its heels against any further aid to the Syrian rebels beyond the provision of communications equipment. It is hard to know how lasting this position will be as the president had previously touted Bashar al-Assad as a negotiating partner before calling for his departure from office. And last year, the administration resisted weeks of entreaties to intervene in Libya before deciding to do so. Events in Syria may dictate a more forceful White House response–events such as the recent firing across the Turkish border by Syrian security forces. A few more incidents like that and Turkey may decided to establish “safe zones” within Syria–a move that would probably drag the U.S. along given the close ties between President Obama and Prime Minister Erdogan.

But why has the administration refused to act so far? On its face this refusal is mysterious given that the human rights situation in Syria is even more appalling than the conditions which prevailed in Libya prior to the U.S.-led intervention–and the strategic stakes are considerably higher. The administration has offered various explanations of why intervention wouldn’t work–e.g., claiming that the rebels aren’t united enough or that Assad’s air defenses are too formidable or that UN authorization is lacking–but, as I have previously noted, these explanations are not terribly compelling, especially given a death toll climbing north of 10,000 as  we do nothing. If the president wanted to intervene, as he did in Libya, he could easily find cause to override the arguments of naysayers. Why hasn’t he done so?

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The White House appears to be digging in its heels against any further aid to the Syrian rebels beyond the provision of communications equipment. It is hard to know how lasting this position will be as the president had previously touted Bashar al-Assad as a negotiating partner before calling for his departure from office. And last year, the administration resisted weeks of entreaties to intervene in Libya before deciding to do so. Events in Syria may dictate a more forceful White House response–events such as the recent firing across the Turkish border by Syrian security forces. A few more incidents like that and Turkey may decided to establish “safe zones” within Syria–a move that would probably drag the U.S. along given the close ties between President Obama and Prime Minister Erdogan.

But why has the administration refused to act so far? On its face this refusal is mysterious given that the human rights situation in Syria is even more appalling than the conditions which prevailed in Libya prior to the U.S.-led intervention–and the strategic stakes are considerably higher. The administration has offered various explanations of why intervention wouldn’t work–e.g., claiming that the rebels aren’t united enough or that Assad’s air defenses are too formidable or that UN authorization is lacking–but, as I have previously noted, these explanations are not terribly compelling, especially given a death toll climbing north of 10,000 as  we do nothing. If the president wanted to intervene, as he did in Libya, he could easily find cause to override the arguments of naysayers. Why hasn’t he done so?

I can’t help noting that this is an election year in the United States and President Obama is seeking reelection based on a narrative of having “ended” a war in Iraq and being on his way to ending another war in Afghanistan. As the president constantly reminds us, the “tide of war” is receding (try telling that to the Taliban or the Quds Force). Given that’s going to be his pitch to voters, it would be highly inconvenient if, in November, U.S. aircraft were bombing Syrian regime targets. Yet if the president were to act now, there is considerable risk of such an outcome considering the fact that our military intervention in Libya lasted from March to October of 2011.

Thus, on top of various other considerations, election-year politics probably weighs against a more forceful American response. That’s a shame, because if we do nothing, not only will many more Syrians lose their lives, but we will lose a prime opportunity to tilt the Middle East balance of power against our primary adversary, Iran.

 

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Slaughter Spikes in Syria

What a surprise–not. Just days after former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan unveiled a supposed deal whereby the Syrian government would pull its forces back from cities it had been assaulting, the opposition reports that attacks are going on as heavy as before in four major cities: Hama, Homs, Idlib and Dara. The odds that a ceasefire will actually be observed on April 10 appear slim.

This is likely to be the latest of countless promises that Bashar al-Assad has broken. It is not hard to see the reason for his duplicity: nothing less than regime survival–and his personal survival–are at stake. Assad knows that if he calls off his troops, his people will continue to rise against him. Therefore, he has no choice if he is to remain in power but to continue the bloody work of repression. To think anything else is the height of naiveté.

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What a surprise–not. Just days after former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan unveiled a supposed deal whereby the Syrian government would pull its forces back from cities it had been assaulting, the opposition reports that attacks are going on as heavy as before in four major cities: Hama, Homs, Idlib and Dara. The odds that a ceasefire will actually be observed on April 10 appear slim.

This is likely to be the latest of countless promises that Bashar al-Assad has broken. It is not hard to see the reason for his duplicity: nothing less than regime survival–and his personal survival–are at stake. Assad knows that if he calls off his troops, his people will continue to rise against him. Therefore, he has no choice if he is to remain in power but to continue the bloody work of repression. To think anything else is the height of naiveté.

For outside powers watching the slaughter in horror, this means they have no choice but to push for Assad’s downfall; there will be no end to the violence and repression as long as he stays in power–or as long as the Syrian people have the will to resist his oppression. And they have shown plenty of will so far. The willingness of Gulf Arab states to pay salaries to Syrian rebel fighters and the willingness of the U.S. to provide them communications equipment are, as I have previously noted, positive steps forward. But they are not enough. More will be needed–from providing arms to the rebels to establishing safe zones where civilians can find refuge from Assad’s killers.

As it happens, the Turkish government is widely reported to be considering just such a step which would require some degree of Turkish military intervention on Syrian soil. This is something that Ankara is naturally reluctant to do, but all signs are that it could be pushed into action provided the U.S. takes a firm stance. That has, so far, been lacking. For all of the calls from Washington for Assad’s removal, President Obama has not been willing to do much to back up his words. The time for more robust action is well past given the continuing and predictable failure of diplomacy.

 

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Nations Step Up Syrian Rebel Aid

Under the category of “better late than never” (but just barely): An international “Friends of Syria” group of nations agreed in Istanbul to step up aid, at least of the non-lethal sort, to the Syrian rebels. Gulf nations pledged $100 million to pay salaries to the anti-Assad fighters while the U.S. agreed to send communications equipment to help the rebels get better organized.

That’s certainly a step forward, but it’s not as far as the U.S. and its allies should go. As Molham Al Drobi, a member of the Syrian National Council, told the New York Times:  “Our people are killed in the streets. If the international community prefers not to do it themselves, they should at least help us doing it by giving us the green light, by providing us the arms, or anything else that needs to be done.”

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Under the category of “better late than never” (but just barely): An international “Friends of Syria” group of nations agreed in Istanbul to step up aid, at least of the non-lethal sort, to the Syrian rebels. Gulf nations pledged $100 million to pay salaries to the anti-Assad fighters while the U.S. agreed to send communications equipment to help the rebels get better organized.

That’s certainly a step forward, but it’s not as far as the U.S. and its allies should go. As Molham Al Drobi, a member of the Syrian National Council, told the New York Times:  “Our people are killed in the streets. If the international community prefers not to do it themselves, they should at least help us doing it by giving us the green light, by providing us the arms, or anything else that needs to be done.”

He’s absolutely right. With more than 9,000 Syrians having already been slaughtered–and possibly far more–it is imperative that the international community do more to even the odds for the embattled rebel fighters by providing them with arms and ammunition. These need not be heavy weapons that could potentially threaten Israel or destabilize neighboring countries–AK-47s, RPGs, and lots of ammunition will do. Otherwise, Bashar al-Assad will continue his homicidal campaign to stamp out the rebellion with the help of the Iranian regime–and prevent the U.S. from seizing a major opportunity to alter the balance of power in the Middle East against the ayatollahs.

 

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Washington Should Help Syrian Opposition

There is something perverse and a little bit circular about the administration argument that we can’t help the Syrian opposition until they get better organized. As this National Journal article notes, Hillary Clinton last week told a House committee the opposition in Libya “had a face, both the people who were doing the outreach diplomatically and the fighters. We could actually meet with them. We could eyeball them. We could ask them tough questions. Here, you know, when [Ayman al-] Zawahiri of al-Qaida comes out and supports the Syrian opposition, you’ve got to ask yourself: ‘If we arm, who are we arming?”

The problem is that the Syrian opposition is not likely to get better organized until the U.S. and other outside powers make a decision to help them. In fact by deciding to provide money, arms, and other aid we could support the more moderate and responsible elements of the opposition while sidelining the extremists. No doubt we should be careful about where we distribute arms, but handing out small arms does not pose much of a strategic threat to Israel or other American allies even if they fall into the wrong hands. No one is suggesting giving Stingers to the Free Syrian Army.

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There is something perverse and a little bit circular about the administration argument that we can’t help the Syrian opposition until they get better organized. As this National Journal article notes, Hillary Clinton last week told a House committee the opposition in Libya “had a face, both the people who were doing the outreach diplomatically and the fighters. We could actually meet with them. We could eyeball them. We could ask them tough questions. Here, you know, when [Ayman al-] Zawahiri of al-Qaida comes out and supports the Syrian opposition, you’ve got to ask yourself: ‘If we arm, who are we arming?”

The problem is that the Syrian opposition is not likely to get better organized until the U.S. and other outside powers make a decision to help them. In fact by deciding to provide money, arms, and other aid we could support the more moderate and responsible elements of the opposition while sidelining the extremists. No doubt we should be careful about where we distribute arms, but handing out small arms does not pose much of a strategic threat to Israel or other American allies even if they fall into the wrong hands. No one is suggesting giving Stingers to the Free Syrian Army.

In addition to supporting responsible rebels, we should also be acting to grow the ranks of the moderate opposition by using all of the influence at our disposal to convince government, military and business leaders in Syria to defect. Instead, we are standing on the sidelines complaining about the deficiencies of the opposition even as Bashar al-Assad and his gang are slaughtering civilians in the street.

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